A blog that I've read for a long time recently linked to an article that stresses the importance of play time for children. I admit that I particularly enjoy such articles because I feel validated. Validated that the lack of extracurricular sports and activities in the lives of my children will benefit them in the long run. When I do really consider the idea, though, that free play is important, what strikes me most is how many memories I have of unstructured play from my own childhood.
We moved from Wisconsin to Arizona when I was six. This gives me a very convenient ability to know just how young I was in certain memories. For instance, my memories of playing in the snow are all from very early childhood. As are my memories of interacting with our wood pile. It had many nooks and crannies that I would use as my kitchen. I would store pine cones and twigs, leaves and various other yard items in those nooks and crannies. I had elaborate plans and conversations with my "family" at that wood pile.
I also spent a fair amount of time making bug hotels. I would arrange twigs and leaves at varying levels--poking holes through the leaves to make different "floors" for all the bugs I found. This was very serious business. It was the kind of thing that I could tell someone I was doing and expect that they would automatically understand. It made so much sense to me.
When we moved out to Arizona my bug play had to take on a different order. We swam a lot. Pools are a kind of graveyard for bugs. I would save bugs--crickets, ants and even bees and wasps--from drowning. I specifically remember using these plastic hair pins that were strewn about at my dad's apartment pool (some random lady's hair accessories, I assume). They had a kind of indent at one end that was perfect for holding a tiny drop of water. This was what I would set beside my bug patients to aid in their recovery--necessary hydration for their poolside triage.
I can only assume that the intensity to which I became involved in this play is why it is so etched in my memory. I cannot say that these things made me a more stable person, a more intelligent person or better adjusted than I would have been had I been playing organized games every Saturday or twice during the week. I just know that the examples I've shared are only a few of the memories of playing that I have. I can also say that when I think about those times there is a feeling of warm safety--if that makes sense--and for me to be able to say that about my otherwise tumultuous childhood in extraordinary.
These memories in particular, of playing and interacting with the natural world, were what I thought of when I read a particular passage in CS Lewis' Surprised by Joy describing some of his childhood mystical experiences. Even thinking of it in those terms, a mystical experience, is perhaps the vocabulary I'm grasping for when I say these memories give me a feeling of "warm safety." He says:
"The first is itself the memory of memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to enormous) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but of desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past---and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing which had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison."
I'm not even sure that what he is describing is the same as what I experienced in my free play. But I have this intense other-worldly understanding associated with the time I spent playing. I was doing nothing important and everything important at the same time. I was forgetting myself and those around me in a way that starts to become embarrassing as you get older. It must be that authenticity that Jesus says is necessary to really approach Him. No one can organize that kind of play. It is entirely different from the sports and art that is led by an adult. Perhaps it was those experiences that prepared me for my future conversion.
I'm not going to grieve the loss of that intense childhood play mind frame. I think it served me--and continues to do so in a latent way. I do know that I am made very happy when I overhear my children engaged in elaborate stories and role-playing within ear shot. Even if it only makes me feel better for not enrolling them in YMCA soccer because the thought of regular practices exhausts me.